Robert McPartland was one of the 42 artists shortlisted in the Jackson’s Painting Prize this year with his work Arezzo. Robert’s paintings are a meditation on space and the relationships formed within and around various everyday objects. Here, we find out about his philosophy towards painting, his visual and musical influences, and the intuitive space between artist and painting.
Above image: Bride, 2009, Robert McPartland, Oil on canvas, 120 x 114 cm
Clare: Can you tell us about your artistic background/education?
Robert: I always drew, painted and made things from being small and couldn’t wait to start art school. I had a great basic design foundation course at Middlesbrough and from 1972 -75, did a fine art/painting degree at Ravensbourne college, which was then in Bromley, South London. After a time working as a porter in a hospital I worked as a technician in Waddington Galleries in Cork St. and then two years at the Tate Gallery. In the late 70’s I had a studio at Butlers Wharf, next to Tower Bridge, which was a brilliant time; the Thames was lined with artists warehouse studios. After 5 years out of college I needed a more demanding (and rewarding) way of making a living and did a one year teacher training PGCE at Goldsmiths. I then taught art in secondary education for 28 years, raising a family, always maintaining a studio and continuing to paint. I took early retirement in 1995 and now paint full time.
Clare: Where does a painting begin for you? Can you take us through your process?
Robert: For me, painting is a cyclical process, connected to everything else I do/see/read, but the journey to a painting starts with playing with objects. I have boxes of things I’ve collected but also pick up things we use at home everyday, or organic forms, mainly fruit, but also found leaves etc. I compose them in various situations and use different lighting setups, as well as an assortment of coloured card/papers. I start with a range of objects and compose them in numerous ways, changing quickly and adding, reducing, changing background colours, lighting angles etc until something starts to happen. It’s different every time and I never end up with what I thought I might want at the start. The main thing is to be present, open and responsive to what happens, just as in the act of painting itself. I take a lot of photos of these arrangements and spend quite a while looking at/editing them on Photoshop in all kind of ways. Images can live with me for years before I decide to commit to paint and drawing from the photographs to fix the final composition is important to get rid of the “camera eye”. Scale is vital to my work and deciding on the right size for a given composition is a tricky business which I don’t always get right. Sometimes, projecting the photographic image on the studio wall can help with this, but it isn’t a guarantee. Size chosen, I can begin to paint.
Clare: The surfaces of your paintings almost look soft to the touch. Can you tell us a little bit about your painting technique?
Robert: I use oil paints because they fit my sensibility; also, they’re organic and largely translucent, so suit the painting of natural forms, light, complex colour and graduations. Skin and sky are the perfect subjects for oils, but I like to think that in a way I paint these qualities in my still lives, eg. the skin of fruit and the spaces within and around the forms. I use a range of brands of oils but have certain favourites for certain colours, e.g. I always use Winsor & Newton Artist’s Titanium White. My approach is very simple and isn’t process-based; I follow the basic rules of fat over lean and sometimes use matt glazes for certain colours, but apart from that there is no programmatic approach. I prefer fitches over flats, but use rounds at times and have a range of blenders for graduations.
I’m not interested in creating an impasto materiality for its own sake and don’t use more paint than feels necessary; equally, I’m not interested in smooth photo/hyperrealism as the photograph is largely for general colour reference. Sometimes colours are mixed on the surface but often they are a mix/ balance of constituent opposites, eg yellow and violet. Edges are crucial and, to be blunt, few painters these days seem very aware of their power. I rotate the painting a lot and can often work for a whole day with it upside down, for which I thank my college training in abstraction! Also I use a mirror to reverse my view of the painting, for balance.
Painting is a series of small additions and therefore (often intuitive) decisions; the painting is the compound result of these and its eventual personality, so to speak, is the embodied whole. My earlier work could tend to be a bit strident in colour and I’ve toned it down a bit as I’ve got older, so perhaps that explains any perceived softness, though it does depend on the viewer too!
Clare: I like the way your colours are often very bright but then offset by more muted tones. What inspires your choice of colours and how do you select your palette?
Robert: The subject usually determines the colour, but on a couple of occasions I’ve made a reference to a painting. Arezzo which was shortlisted for the Jackson’s Painting Prize this year, was a combination of the colour relationship (you mentioned) I’ve seen in Quattrocento paintings in Italy, including the Piero della Francesca frescoes in Arezzo (hence the title) and an abstract painting by Ben Nicholson from 1937, in the Courtauld collection.
Clare: There is a real sense of peace in your work and I read that you are inspired by Zen philosophy. What Zen principles do you aim to carry through your paintings and how does this affect your practice on the whole?
Robert: I became interested in Zen and Tao whilst at college. Post war American abstraction was a huge influence on my tutors generation, but what isn’t often mentioned is the interest in Eastern philosophy that came with it. Much of the Zen influence revolved around letting go of intentionality and the conceptual whilst painting and it didn’t really extend beyond that in my student life!
As I got older I revisited it, via a bad back, yoga (for it), a trip to India, and meditation. Tao is nature and Zen is its way in Buddhism, which has a simplicity and connectedness to the everyday that is often muddied by complexity in other Buddhist forms. I’m drawn to the power of space and the essential in art and my tastes in music reflect this – the single instrument, duo/trio, jazz, minimalism, ragas and a certain relationship with nature that is poetic but unfussy and not precious. I am from Yorkshire, so that might have something to do with it!
I decided some years back that my work had to be consistent with what I felt (my) nature was and what I identified with in the work of others, regardless of how that may “fit” in the art world, so I let go. My path has been quite solitary and I know my work is “marmite” but there is a freedom there. I realised from my trips to India and Florence that essentially, the painting I admire and want to make is devotional and that God is to be found in its spaces. This meant really letting go of the belief systems of much modern and contemporary art. Matisse sought calm and repose in his mature work and was criticised for it for years, but he lived through three wars, fought family resistance to his vocation and was a chronic insomniac all his life. I believe that, like Matisse, we need art that can heal.
Though I don’t keep a list, my principles as such are – avoid conceptualising, hold to the essential, see the large through the small and insignificant, space is form and form is space, let the painting be itself and free of time, be as nature and seek balance, there are no things, only relationships. I know myself better as I’ve got older and realise that my assessment of how well a painting is going is as much to do with the time of day, how I slept, what I ate etc. as my critical abilities. All my painting wants is for me to clean my brushes and palette with care, turn up and be present.
Clare: Spoons appear in your work quite frequently… What is it that draws you to this object and how do you select the other objects you place together?
Robert: I’m not attached to spoons as a subject; their reflective, concave surfaces bring the space above into the form and to a degree, dematerialise it, which I find interesting. They are also a component element in place settings and I’m interested in the tabletop as a place where relationships reveal themselves. Putting one thing next to another is how relationships are created and is in many ways, the heart of painting. I try to remain open, observing and responding to the visual qualities of forms and then introduce them to each other, in the hope that there’s chemistry. Essentially, I’m like Fred Sirieix!
Clare: What are your most important artist’s tools? Do you have any favourites?
Robert: I guess my main tools are brushes, but I don’t have any favourites. My favourites were Daler Rowney Bristlewhite brushes, which they’ve discontinued, though I still have one or two. I like the Jackson’s Procryl range for detailed work with oils, but my fave tool overall has to be my tube wringer, which has saved me pounds and regularly gets seconded to the bathroom and kitchen for toothpaste and tomato puree tubes! I also have a lovely old wooden school kitchen trolley in the studio I saved when I was a teacher (Health and Safety condemned it) which now has a large palette and is customised to hold paint tubes.
Clare: How has the lockdown of the last few months affected your practice?
Robert: I live with my partner, Stephanie Tuckwell, who is also a painter, and we have our studios at home, so our practice hasn’t really been affected at all. We buy our materials and tools online, so that’s been fine. Painting is a solitary business, and in a way I’ve been in lockdown for 10 years! Before lockdown We got up early and went to the gym three times a week and we miss that, though we now run in the park nearby and do yoga/meditation every day. More than anything we miss being able to see our grown up children, who don’t live nearby. Sadly, Kooywood gallery in Cardiff, which I have shown with for 15 years, has recently closed.
Clare: What are your art influences? Who are your favourite contemporary or historical artists and why?
Robert: Some of my biggest influences are not artists. Music is hugely important to me and my companions in the studio are Satie, Glass, Reich, Bach, EST, Miles Davis, Coltrane(s), Evans, John Hassell. I have a layman’s interest in physics and am usually looking for connections between it and painting.
I read a book in 2010 titled The Master and his Emissary by Dr. Iain McGilchrist which has been a Rosetta stone for me. The first half is an analysis and explanation of the divided structure of our brains and the second a (Western) cultural critique based on the first half. It’s meticulous, erudite and astonishing. Everyone should read it.
My wife, Stephanie Tuckwell, who is a wonderful painter and from whom I’ve learned so much.
Fra Angelico, Piero Della Francesca – Serene, pure, majisterial. Caravaggio – belligerently independent and a unique compositional genius. Giorgio Morandi – Laconically independent but connective to Piero and Fra Angelico’s spirituality. Domenico Gnoli – Elegantly independent, under-celebrated genius who returns us to the modern world seen strangely anew through the Italian tradition above. Eric Ravillious – gentle, metaphysical, English landscape – a beautiful sensibility. Richard Diebenkorn – Complete painter whose spacious Ocean Park paintings connect Modernism, via Matisse, to the contemplative and serene of the above.
I’m also currently interested in Hilma Af Klint and Agnes Pelton, two unrelated 20th century transcendentalist painters, who are quite influential on some younger U.S. artists. My favourite contemporary artists are probably Sarah Sze and Bill Viola – Bill Viola for obvious reasons given my other influences, but Sarah Sze for her intuitive understanding of consciousness and her ability to create visual structures/systems that are as poetic and dynamic as their subject. Her sculptures are as fluid as paintings. I like the look of Sarah Ball’s more recent, larger scale portraits.
Clare: What makes a good day in the studio for you?
Robert: A good night’s sleep, early start and stopping before it looks awful! It usually looks better the next morning.
Clare: Do you have any exhibitions coming up? Where else can we see your work?
Robert: I recently had several large pieces in a group show at ArtCatto in Loulie, in the Algarve in Portugal, but it closed with the lockdown. I believe it has recently re-opened. Likewise, I was in a beautifully curated group show at Gallery 57 in Arundel, West Sussex that was similarly affected and closed after two weeks. I am working towards a show there next Spring with my partner Stephanie. It’s a lovely gallery, owned and curated by Ann Symes, who is also an artist.
I’ve very recently uploaded a short film about my work on youtube which was conceived, filmed, edited and scored by my son Jack. He’s really condensed many of my main concerns into it.